China has attracted attention with its economic growth over the last thirty years, but now it has begun to draw attention to other issues besides the development model. Chinese foreign policy is at the forefront of these issues. China’s foreign policy, especially regional issues, is on the rise in the world public opinion. Visits of Chinese President Xi Jinping to three important Middle Eastern countries, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran, in early 2016, became the focus of attention. It also brought many questions about China’s Middle East policy like “Does China want to replace the US in the Middle East? Is China trying to take on the role of mediator in the Middle East?”
The motivation in the background of China’s foreign policy moves and decisions is drawing interests, but it also reveals the difficulty in understanding China’s foreign policy. However, understanding what kind of mechanism and process shapes China’s foreign policy decisions, will be more useful for comprehending China’s foreign policy.
The decision-making mechanism and process of contemporary Chinese foreign policy are no longer created by a single leader and his close friends as in the Mao era. Especially after 1978, with the process of change initiated by Deng Xiaoping, it is difficult to talk about an oligarchic group in the China’s foreign policy mechanism or process.
Starting with the initiation of “Reform and Outward Opening” strategy by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, who is now regarded as the architect of today’s China, China has undergone a tremendous transformation in the state and the society. While the achievements of economic development have made society’s life more prosperous and rich, China’s international position has also rapidly risen. At our time when the globalization is the main theme, all these developments dragged China into a tendency to integrate more into the international system. This change has caused the various units of China to deal with more problems and issues. It is a manifestation of this tendency that many Chinese government institutions in recent years have opened branches that coordinate foreign relations.
With this process that started at the end of the 70s, the decision-making mechanism and process in China’s foreign policy entered into two fundamental changes. These are the more professional decision-making mechanism and the more decentralized decision-making authority in the mechanism.
The first change is actually due to the result of foreign policy in general. Nowadays, while foreign policy issues are diversified, taking accurate and consistent decisions about the subject now require more knowledge in more fields. When we look at the Chinese Foreign Ministry from this perspective, we can see that 29 new units are trying to specialize in different issues in foreign policy.
The second change is that the leader is losing his place as the only decision-maker at foreign policy. One of the most obvious examples of the distribution of decision-making power sharing in Chinese foreign policy is experienced in military affairs. Today’s Chinese leaders are not military identities like Mao and other former leaders. In military affairs involving foreign policy issues today’s military experience lacking leaders more need experience and advice of military officers. When we look at the reactions of China and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to the problems that China is experiencing in the East and South China Seas, especially problems with Japan, the PLA is reacting harder and directly, while the Chinese Foreign Ministry using diplomatic style. Another example is that responses to many questions addressed at the press conferences of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have answered like that there is no relevant information or that other ministries should be asked.
Today, China is increasing its integration with the world from day to day, and the issues and problems that it is facing in external relations are increasing at that level. Many units are now able to influence policy making by involving China’s foreign policy decision-making and process. Apart from the Standing Committee of the Central Politburo, many organizations and institutions such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the State Council Foreign Policy Working Group, the Central Military Committee, the Ministry of Commerce, the Ministry of National Education, and the Ministry of Culture are able to demonstrate their influence over the agenda of China’s foreign policy. For example, in the case of the Public Diplomacy, other than the State Council, organizations such as the Confucius Institute Presidency, the Ministry of Culture, the General Sports Administration can play an active role in their own work. The thing that should not be ignored is, although the participation and influence of different institutions in the foreign policy mechanism has increased, the State Leader and the Standing Committee of the Politburo are still the highest authorities and decision makers in policy making.
China’s foreign policy decision-making mechanism and the process must be analyzed well in order to understand who determines the Chinese foreign policy and the motivation behind foreign policy decisions. Competencies and conflicts that occur between institutions that involve China’s foreign policy decision-making mechanism, which is also uniquely shaping within the Chinese political system, reflects the bureaucracy model in the foreign policy mechanism. While the State Leader and the Standing Committee of the Politburo are major determinants in taking Chinese foreign policy decisions today, different units can influence policy making by directing decision-makers with domestic and international effectiveness.